Sunday, April 18, 2021
St. Luke’s Nurse Recounts a Year with COVID
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Angela Brady said that some staff has worked a third more hours than normal during the pandemic. COURTESY: Angela Brady
   
Friday, March 12, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Angela Brady expects to shed a few tears Saturday night when Wood River Valley residents step out in their front yards to howl in appreciation of their health care workers on the anniversary of the day the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Idaho.

“I heard the howls from my house in Ketchum last spring and every time I would get so choked up and many nights I would cry,” said Brady, nurse manager at St. Luke’s Wood River. “The first couple weeks it was a moment for me to let down and let loose. And I’d cry because I was tired or scared.”

Brady knew enough to be scared when the novel coronavirus began making inroads in Asia and Europe. Even before it was known to be in the United States, St. Luke’s executives put a team together to study how to address the virus, and they were starting to feed what scanty information they could learn to physicians and nurses.

 
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Testers were greeted by rain and snow early in the pandemic, which only seemed to make things darker.
 

“I particularly became alarmed when Washington State got its first outbreak,” said Brady. “I knew we have quite a few second homeowners in this valley from Washington, and I speculated it was only a matter of time before we got it here.”

Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg and other local leaders were also concerned. At their urging, the Sun Valley Film Festival reluctantly cancelled. The International Ski History Association and U.S. Ski/Snowboard Hall of Fame Ski Hall of Fame and dozens of others followed suit. And, suddenly, what had been shaping up as the busiest March calendar in the history of Sun Valley slammed to a halt.

But the virus came anyway, although Idaho was one of the last states to report a case.

On March 11—the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic—Sun Valley homeowners Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson confirmed they were infected and in quarantine in Australia.

 
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Lynn Bockemohle, who often wheeled patients in and out of the hospital, was remembered with flowers and cards at the Prairie Creek trailhead where he volunteered as a Nordic patrolman.
 

At the time, there was just 125,000 confirmed cases and fewer than 5,000 deaths around the world. Today, 117 million people have been infected and more than 2.6 million have died.

On March 13, 2020, the first case in Idaho was confirmed in Boise. And a day later the first case of coronavirus in Blaine County was announced.

Sun Valley Resort responded by announcing that it would close the Roundhouse Gondola for the remainder of the season to prevent close contact between individuals. And workers removed half of the tables and chairs from each ski lodge to discourage crowds from hanging out.

But a day later resort officials announced they would shut down ski operations a month ahead of schedule, following similar decisions by Vail and other ski resorts. And the Argyros Center for the Performing Arts announced it would go dark for the remainder of March, cancelling concerts by Rosanne Cash and others.

 
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Virginia Johnson, 88, spent weeks in intensive care with COVID-19 but now cross-country skis five days a week with her daughter Amy Johnson and girlfriends like Ann Christensen and Gun Taylor.
 

Schools abruptly closed with no word about when they would reopen.

Brady was at the hospital when the clinical nurse leader learned of the hospital’s first positive case.

“She began talking about how we were going to move forward to manage it. And then it became real. We hadn’t been through something like this so we had to rely on the local health department to help us navigate it,” Brady recalled.

Before staff had time to collect their thoughts, a second case came in. And then more as people who thought they had been dealing with “the Ketchum crud” began streaming in.

 
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Uber athlete Muffy Ritz, who turned a ball into a coronavirus, is among many valley residents who has dealt with long-hauler symptoms, such as loss of taste and smell and pulmonary struggles.
 

Two emergency physicians became sick, one describing the illness as “a whisper that slowly turned into a scream,” with chest and back aching with each breath, bone rattling shakes and a suffocating feeling. Some of their co-workers quarantined because of possible exposure, worrying about their own mortality as they waited a week for their tests results.

As valley residents began sanitizing their groceries, hospital staff began trying to understand the strange new disease. Did it spread on surfaces? Was it airborne? Would it go away when summer came?

“Emotions ran high because we knew so little,” Brady said.

The hospital opened one of the state’s first drive-through testing sites in the parking lot a few days after it began seeing COVID patients. Its employees braved rain, sleet and snow to administer the tortuous nasal swabs.

Inside, staffers created a wing in the hospital for COVID patients. They put makeshift PPE carts outside each room and they practiced putting on that PPE.

“There’s a certain step-by-step protocol you have to follow so you don’t contaminate yourself,” Brady explained. “You use sanitizer on the outside of your gloves, then you take your googles off and wipe them down and so on. If you don’t do it properly, you could touch a COVID particle after you take everything off.”

Staff was forced to start thinking on their feet, Brady said.

“Our staff was getting sick and exposed. We were trying to figure out when we should quarantine. We were trying to create protocols. We were having to bring in doctors and nurses from elsewhere. We were scared, and we were trying so hard to be prepared as much as we possibly could be. Thank goodness we are a part of a larger health system so we were able to reach out to the hospital in Boise and lean on them.”

The streets around Ketchum emptied as residents were ordered to stay at home and hotels began closing their doors to out-of-town guests. Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw urged Wood River Valley residents to discourage friends and family from taking virus vacations.

And, suddenly, it was reported that Sun Valley led the nation in per capita crates of confirmed cases, thanks to its close-knit community that loved to rub elbows at apres-ski and dinner parties and visitors who came from around the world to enjoy this mountain paradise.

Brady sent her daughter to stay with her sister so she and her husband Randy Hall, emergency manager specialist for St. Luke’s Wood River, Jerome and Twin Falls hospitals, could focus on what they needed to do to learn more about the disease and keep people safe.

The next two weeks got even scarier as more patients needing ventilator care flooded the hospital and as more staff got sick.

Surgeon Allison Kinsler returned from a week-long cell phone-free ski trip in the Sawtooth Mountains to find the valley was in lockdown and her surgeries had been cancelled.

Nurses, who had been trained to deal with Ebola, had to learn about medications they’d never used before and oxygen delivery systems they’d never worked with. Everyone had to pitch in to turn patients on their stomach in a procedure called proning that was found to help breathing.

A week after the first known patient with COVID came through their doors, the hospital closed all but the emergency department.

“Everyone was putting their head down, doing their job, doing their best to take care of patients. But, before we knew it, we had so many staff who were out sick or quarantined. Hospital executives said, ‘We need to give the Wood River staff a break and see if we can’t get them healthy again,’ ” Brady recounted.

On March 26, the Department of Health and Welfare reported that two Blaine County residents were among the first in the state to die of the virus.

One of them—Lynn Bockemohle—was beloved by the staff at St. Luke’s, as he’d been a consummate volunteer and blood donor. He had died on a ventilator at the hospital in Twin Falls, his wife Sharon telling him how much she loved him as the nurse put a phone to his ear.

Firefighters like Lara McLean joined the brigade to transport patients 80 miles away to the hospital in Twin Falls and 150 miles away to the hospital in Boise in ambulances that had plastic duct taped between drivers and patients. St. Luke’s air ambulance became a familiar sight making its way northward along Highway 75 to the hospital, the thud of its rotors a reminder that the valley was in a grip of a crisis.

The emergency room stayed opened as the hospital trained surgical staff and baby nurses how to be emergency room nurses. Elective surgeries were cancelled and the inpatient unit closed, the mother-baby department diverted to Boise.

“Even lab technicians, x-ray staff were getting sick,” Brady recalled. “It was eerie to see the hospital empty. It felt like we were at war—it was eerie and scary.”

Brady did not see her daughter for three weeks. With schools going online she decided her daughter should remain with her aunt until summer because she needed someone to help her navigate the world of online learning while her mother and father were taking extra shifts at the hospital.

“I got choked leaving her there,” she said. “My family was scared. My neighbors were scared. When you don’t have the full story, it can be very scary.”

Two weeks after suspending non-emergency operations the hospital began resuming suspended operations bit by bit.

By summer Idaho, which had never mandated masks statewide, was chalking up more virus cases than more populous neighbors like Washington and Oregon.

But things had simmered down in Blaine County, thanks to mask mandates and social distancing protocols enacted early by the county and the valley’s city leaders. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who had suffered or even died with COVID and so they were eager to do what they had to do to keep themselves and others safe.

Wood River Valley residents who took part in an antibody test to advance corona research learned that 35 percent of Ketchum residents had tested positive—one of the highest rates per capita in the nation. A quarter of the county’s adult population tested positive.

Brady and her husband managed to avoid becoming sick themselves, thanks to strict observance of PPE protocol. They avoided hanging out in the community and took only take-out from restaurants. They intentionally skipped Thanksgiving with relatives.

Meanwhile, valley residents, who had wondered whether anyone would return to Sun Valley after it had been a corona hot spot, watched uneasily as Texas, Massachusetts and other license plates flooded the valley bringing pandemic refugees.

The county kept cases down during summer. But, come September, everybody’s worst fears were realized as cases surged—reportedly, because people were letting down their guard and having get-togethers.

By October Emergency Physician Terry O’Connor was warning that the county had reported 53 new cases of coronavirus over a one-week period—more than the 47 cases reported over a seven-day period just before the county went into lockdown and St. Luke’s Wood River shut down in March.

On that day the state of Idaho chalked up an all-time high of 1,094 new cases.

St. Luke’s Magic Valley had to shift pediatric cases to Boise and send patients elsewhere as it struggled to treat the COVID patients that streamed into the hospital. Hospital officials throughout southern Idaho held their breath worrying the surge would overwhelm their hospitals.

And, once again, Wood River nurses had to hold the hands of patients as they died without family members present.

“I know they were taking it home to their families,” Brady said, adding that some staff members were continuously taking extra shifts. “But who better than a nurse to deal with that?”

The hospital had some tight calls, Brady said. But in late December a ray of hope as bright as the sunlight on a bluebird day on Baldy manifested itself as St. Luke’s air transport delivered the first batch of Moderna vaccines to the hospital.

Brady got the first of her two doses two weeks later. St. Luke’s Wood River has dispensed about 4,800 doses to staff and community members in the two months since.

“I felt like tearing up,” Brady said of the first jab that went into her arm.

Being fully vaccinated has given Brady a new lease on life. Many of her family is in healthcare and have been vaccinated so they’ve been able to have a few small get-togethers. Brady and her husband dined out at a restaurant for the first time in over a year this week.

“It was a little nerve wracking. But everyone was doing a good job of wearing masks so I was just happy to be out and about,” she said.

Brady says she was sad and disappointed to see children egged on by their parents burning masks in front of the State Capitol in Boise.

“I think that they must not have all the information,” she said. “Our county has been so good about following all the CDC guidelines. Seeing how we’ve honored them here does my heart good.”

Brady did not expect that Idaho and the nation would still be in the grips of coronavirus this long.

“It’s been really hard. And, eventually, we have to get on with other business, as well. We have to make sure other things are running smoothly.”

As May dawned, Idaho had 2,015 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases with 63 deaths. Blaine County had 497 cases and four deaths.

Now, more than 1,900 Idahoans have died of COVID and nearly 175,000 have tested positive, with many others certain they had it but unable to get a test. Blaine County has recorded 2,201 positive cases and 17 deaths.

But, despite the challenges of the past year, Brady feels grateful.

“Vaccinations have really boosted morale and optimism among the staff. I am blown away when I see staff that has been working overtime to take care of patients in the hospital turn around and volunteer to run vaccination clinics. They’re amazing, amazing human beings.”

She paused.

“We are really lucky to live here despite the challenges we had. And we had some really big challenges. But we so much support from our community, our health care system. If I had to, I would do it all over again and I would want to do it all over again right here.”

 


 

 

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